Debating India

GENERAL ELECTIONS 98

Alliances of Convenience

Saturday 10 January 1998, by CHAUDHURI*Kalyan, MENON*Parvathi, NAGESH KUMAR*S., PADMANABHAN*R. , RAMAKRISHNAN*Venkitesh , SUBRAMANIAN*T.S. , SWAMI*Praveen , VENKATESAN*V.

The BJP has entered into alliances with parties that have in the past opposed its ideological positions. Reports from key States.

Uttar Pradesh

VENKITESH RAMAKRISHNAN

More than anywhere else, in Uttar Pradesh the BJP and its new allies seem to have forgotten their former antagonistic positions.

"THE politics of Uttar Pradesh is somewhat strange," said Chief Minister Kalyan Singh when asked how the BJP could join hands with parties and persons who were previously opposed to it. It probably highlights the BJP’s inability to provide an ideological or political justification for its new alliances in the State.

The allies also face a similar problem. Many of them had claimed until recently that they were "unwavering in their opposition to the communal politics of the BJP". But in the quest for power, the BJP and its new allies seem to have forgotten their former positions.

Take the case of Raghuraj Pratap Singh. Barely one and a half years ago, during the campaign for the Assembly elections, Kalyan Singh himself used strong words about this independent MLA from Kunda in Pratapgarh district. Addressing public meetings in the constituency, Kalyan Singh said that Raghuraj Pratap Singh had won successive elections on the strength of muscle power.

After a spectacular display of his combative skills in the Assembly in the aid of the BJP on the day the motion of confidence was passed, Raghuraj Pratap Singh became a Minister under Kalyan Singh. Recently, a senior police officer, Jasveer Singh, Commandant of the 30th Provincial Armed Constabulary (PAC) battalion, complained to Home Secretary Rajiv Ratan Shah that the Minister and his supporters were harassing him. He sought protection from the state. While serving in Pratapgarh, Jasveer Singh had initiated action against Raghuraj Pratap Singh.

The Chief Minister’s public response to this was that a police officer who cannot safeguard his own life has no business to be in the force. Jasveer Singh went on leave.

The case of Harishankar Tiwari, leader of the Uttar Pradesh Loktantrik Congress (UPLC) and Minister for Science and Technology, is no different. During Kalyan Singh’s first tenure as Chief Minister, the police launched a virtual campaign against Tiwari and his activities in Gorakhpur district. The action taken against Tiwari was widely publicised by Kalyan Singh himself as an indicator of the BJP’s commitment to fight crime.

Today, not only is Tiwari a Minister, but the BJP hopes to garner a sizable number of votes in eastern Uttar Pradesh using Tiwari’s influence.

In the eyes of the BJP, many other Ministers, including Baccha Pathak and Jagadambika Pal of the UPLC and Raja Ram Pandey of the breakaway Janata Dal, have undergone a transformation. Pathak, Pal and Pandey, who were once branded as self-serving pseudo-secularists, are now hailed as committed leaders of the BJP.

The shift of stance in the case of some of BJP’s new allies is equally surprising. When the Congress(I) supported the Mulayam Singh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party-Bahujan Samaj Party (S.P.-BSP) Government between 1993 and 1995, UPLC leader Naresh Agarwal (he was then in the Congress(I)) saw the BJP as a threat to national unity. At public meetings he lampooned the BJP’s Hindutva policies.

During the 1996 Assembly election campaign he said at a rally in Hardoi, his constituency: "If Kalyan Singh is allowed to come to power, they will continue to demolish masjids and unleash communal riots all over the country." However, barely a month after the elections, he started discussions with Kalyan Singh himself on sharing power.

Bihar

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

With the Samata Party distancing itself from the BJP’s Hindutva agenda and criticising the BJP’s alliance with the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, the "tactical" alliance in Bihar has come under strain.

In Bihar, the BJP’s State leadership does not appear to be as euphoric as its national leaders over the alliances the party has entered into in various States. State leaders have to contend with the charge that the party is out to grab power at the Centre by any means. This has stopped them from going all out against their political rivals.

For instance, BJP leaders fear that the party’s criticism of Laloo Prasad Yadav’s alleged involvement in the fodder scam will cut no ice with the people since the party has compromised itself on the issue of corruption by allying itself with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam in Tamil Nadu, whose leader Jayalalitha faces serious corruption charges.

Strains in the BJP-Samata Party alliance also showed up following the Hindutva party’s assertion of its commitment to the building of a Ram temple at Ayodhya, the abrogation of Article 370 which gives special status to Jammu and Kashmir, and the enactment of a uniform civil code. Samata Party leader George Fernandes asserted that his party did not subscribe to the BJP’s line on these issues and would not dilute its stand. The alliance with the BJP was tactical in nature and did not amount to an endorsement of its views, Fernandes said. He also expressed concern over the BJP’s alliance with the AIADMK and hinted that his party might enter into an electoral understanding with the Janata Dal in Bihar. The State unit of the BJP is riven by factionalism, and the leadership has failed to bring about a rapprochement between the factions in 16 of its 62 district-level organisations. As a result, the party’s organisational elections have been delayed.

West Bengal

KALYAN CHAUDHURI

The BJP’s enthusiasm over the prospect of an alliance with the Trinamul Congress of Mamata Banerjee appears to be wearing off.

IN West Bengal, the BJP hardly has any political base. It has no organised cadres and no strongholds. In the 1996 elections, it secured 4 per cent of the popular vote and won no seat in the State. The Left Front and the Congress(I) have been the traditional rivals, and there was no room for a third force. Recently, however, Mamata Banerjee floated the Trinamul Congress after she was expelled from the Congress(I). Her initial statements - that she did not consider the BJP a political "untouchable" - enthused the Hindutva party, but the enthusiasm appears to have worn off.

Mamata Banerjee perhaps reckons that if she includes the BJP in her "Save Bengal Front", she will not win the support of the minorities. Also, the BJP may not allow the Trinamul Congress to gain the upper in an alliance. In fact, the BJP demanded at least 25 seats even before its talks with the Trinamul Congress began.

National and State level BJP leaders consistently claimed that Mamata Banerjee was in touch with them and that the two parties were holding seat-adjustment talks. However, when Mamata Banerjee announced the names of the Trinamul Congress’ candidates for 10 seats - among them, Mani Shankar Aiyar, Krishna Bose, Ajit Panja - State BJP leaders voiced their displeasure over her "unilateral action". Reacting to reports that former West Bengal Chief Minister Siddhartha Shankar Ray might seek election to the Lok Sabha from West Bengal, the BJP said it would field a candidate against him. This would be the case even if Ray stood on the Trinamul Congress ticket, it said.

The Trinamul Congress is yet to emerge as an organised political force and may not be able to make inroads into the Left Front support base, even in alliance with the BJP. If anything, it will eat into the Congress(I)’s share of the popular vote, which will only benefit the Left Front.

Punjab

PRAVEEN SWAMI

Tensions between the Shiromani Akali Dal and the BJP have come to the fore. However, the secular forces are yet to seize the opportunity.

THE tensions within the Shiromani Akali Dal-Bharatiya Janata Party combine in Punjab have begun to manifest themselves. Recently, Laxmi Kanta Chawla, the BJP MLA from Amritsar, launched a public assault on SAD heavyweight and Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee president Gurcharan Singh Tohra, accusing him, among other things, of abetting land-grabbing and worse. What actually provoked her was Tohra’s support for far-right Sikh organisations. The incident illustrates the hostility between Hindu and Sikh communal groupings that is ingrained in the Hindu-Sikh sanjhedari (brotherhood) that the SAD-BJP combine claims to represent. The BJP also did not take kindly to the SAD’s invitation to Prime Minister I.K. Gujral to contest from Jalandhar Lok Sabha elections with its support. A peace offering, in the form of a SAD request that former Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee contest from Punjab, has not helped resolve simmering grassroots-level antagonisms.

Although the major political formations in the State have virtually completed their campaign, the ideological space to be contested has not been defined. The absence of an agenda to oppose the SAD-BJP Government reflects a collapse of secular forces in Punjab.

Despite discontent with the SAD-BJP Government’s performance on the economic front - it has failed to carry out populist schemes like free power to farmers - the Congress(I) has done little to persuade voters that it has an alternative to offer. At the root of the Congress(I)’s problems is its inability to forge a core set of political ideas. The confusion in the Congress(I) has enabled the SAD-BJP to escape the consequences of its internal tensions.

Haryana

PRAVEEN SWAMI

The farmers’ agitation has driven a wedge between the BJP and its ally in government, the Haryana Vikas Party.

RELATIONS between the BJP and its coalition partner, the Haryana Vikas Party of Bansi Lal, are at an all-time low. State BJP vice-president P.K. Chaudhary predicted recently that the HVP would end up merging in the BJP. He attacked the performance of the Bansi Lal Government, saying that it had failed to implement many of the promises made in the BJP’s 1996 manifesto. Rajiv Jain, the HVP’s general secretary, hit back; he told journalists that the BJP leader had "lost his mental balance". Simmering resentment over seat allocation appears to have fuelled the feud, although the HVP has agreed to concede six seats (of the 10 in the State) to the BJP.

Tension between the HVP and the BJP was evident as early as October 1997, when the BJP set up a committee to probe the State Government’s handling of the farmers’ agitation in Mahindergarh. The inquiry followed a mob attack on BJP leader and State Education Minister Ram Bilas Sharma’s home at Rathiwas village. Sharma’s mother was kidnapped by the attackers. She was taken to Nangal Digrota, where farmers were holding a blockade to protest against a police firing that claimed one life. The BJP committee charged the State police with having failed to protect Sharma’s home. Significantly, it also attacked Bansi Lal’s highly unpopular move to restructure electricity tariffs under the World Bank’s directions. The tariff hike, which sparked the agitation at Bhiwani and Mahindergarh, meant that farmers had to pay uniform electricity rates for tubewells irrespective of the depth of the water table. The latest round of violence took place in Jind, after the arrest of Bharatiya Kisan Union leader Nafe Singh for his alleged involvement in an incident of arson in an earlier round of agitation.

The HVP is beset with internecine disputes, even after dissident leader Jai Prakash formed his own Haryana Gana Parishad. Although the HVP has announced its candidates for three seats, local-level disputes, combined with pressure from the BJP, have prevented a decision with respect to the fourth seat.

Maharashtra

R. PADMANABHAN

The Shiv Sena-BJP combine got off the blocks first with a smooth seat-sharing arrangement, but its prospects may be affected by the Opposition’s efforts to field a common candidate against the combine in each constituency.

THE Hindutva camp in Maharashtra has secured an early lead over its rivals by all but finalising the distribution of constituencies. Between them the BJP and the Shiv Sena will contest all the 48 seats. In 1996 the BJP fielded candidates for 28 seats (including three sponsored independents) and the Sena for 20; this time the Sena has been allotted 21 of the 47 constituencies in respect of which agreement had been reached until January 3. A decision on Ichalkaranji in western Maharashtra - which has been dominated by Congressmen - remained to be taken. There were no differences of opinion over the 18 constituencies where the BJP won last time or the 15 where the Sena won. Pending the decision on Ichalkaranji, where the BJP contested last time, there was only one change from last time in the constituencies shared - Karad, in western Maharashtra, has been transferred from the BJP’s quota to the Sena’s.

BJP and Shiv Sena spokespersons claimed that the combine would win 40 seats. A BJP spokesman said that his party would win all the seats it was contesting except Sangli, Baramati - Congress(I) leader Sharad Pawar’s pocket borough - Nandurbar, Pandharpur and Ichalkaranji (if that constituency is allotted to the party).

But the BJP-Shiv Sena combine’s prospects will hinge on the success (or otherwise) of the efforts of the Congress(I) and some parties in the "third force" (comprising a few constituents of the United Front and some regional parties) to ensure that a common candidate is fielded against the saffron alliance in each constituency. In 17 of the 33 seats that the BJP-Sena won in 1996, the combined tally of votes of the candidates of the Congress(I) and the third force was larger than the tally of the BJP or the Shiv Sena.

Orissa

V. VENKATESAN

The alliance with the Biju Janata Dal marks a dilution of the BJP’s avowed opposition to dynastic politics.

IF the BJP and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD) have one thing in common, it is anti-Congressism. The rationale for their alliance in Orissa is that in 1996, at least nine parliamentary seats in the State went to the Congress(I) because of the division of the anti-Congress(I) vote between the Janata Dal and the BJP. This time around, the BJD, which was formed recently after Biju Patnaik’s son Naveen Patnaik broke away from the Janata Dal, appears to have replaced the Janata Dal in the State in terms of the level of popular recognition.

Naveen Patnaik has little political experience and is not fluent in Oriya, but it appears to matter little for his supporters. They consider him as the inheritor of Biju Patnaik’s political legacy.

The BJP, which claims to oppose dynastic politics, has apparently set aside such reservations in the case of Naveen Patnaik. It hopes to project Biju Patnaik as a statesman from Orissa who was ignored during his life time by the Janata Dal and the rest of the United Front.

Janata Dal leader Srikant Jena posed some uncomfortable questions about the BJP’s attitude towards the late leader. He alleged that when Biju Patnaik’s name was considered for the Bharat Ratna, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who was on the award selection committee, wanted the honour conferred on N.T. Rama Rao too. The matter was dropped as there was no consensus, he said. Vajpayee denied Jena’s charge.

The BJP-BJD alliance was announced at the BJP’s national executive meeting in Bhubaneswar in December, but there has been little progress in the sharing of seats since each wants 13 parliamentary seats. The BJP wants a larger share of Lok Sabha seats but may consider ceding more Assembly seats to the BJD, when the Assembly elections are held.

Another indication of the nature of the alliance was that before it began formal seat-sharing talks with the BJP, the BJD explored the chances of getting the Samata Party and Ramakrishna Hegde’s Lok Shakti into the alliance so as to reduce the BJP’s share of seats. BJD leader Dilip Ray reportedly held talks with Rashtriya Janata Dal leader Laloo Prasad Yadav, too.

In seeking to broaden the front, the partners may have stretched their credibility a bit too far.

Andhra Pradesh

S. NAGESH KUMAR

The TDP(NTR) and the BJP are poles apart on core issues; they are united only by their antipathy towards Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu.

A SHARED antipathy towards Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu has brought the Telugu Desam (NTR) of Lakshmi Parvati and the BJP together. The two parties are poles apart on several issues: for instance, the Telugu Desam (NTR) is opposed to the construction of a Ram temple at Ayodhya and the creation of a Telengana state. State BJP president Bandaru Dattatreya prefers to play down these differences, saying, "We are not going to the electorate with a common manifesto."

The two parties fought the 1996 elections together and on that occasion the BJP was clearly the junior partner. It is a sign of the TDP(NTR)’s desperation that Lakshmi Parvati announced that her party would contest 20 of the 42 parliamentary seats in the State and leave the rest for the BJP and some "minor allies". There were reports that the BJP would not be content with anything less than 30 seats.

The BJP, which does not have much of a support base in the State (in 1996 it secured 5 per cent of the vote), has proved an unreliable ally in the past. In 1985 it won seven Assembly seats in alliance with the TDP, but later released a 100-point charge-sheet against N.T. Rama Rao. This time it has inducted film star Vijaya Shanthi and the rebel Telugu Desam Party MP and actor Mohan Babu for its election campaign.

Karnataka

PARVATHI MENON

The BJP hoped to strike an alliance with Ramakrishna Hegde’s Lok Shakti, but Hedge, who prefers an understanding with the Congress(I), has not responded so far.

IN Karnataka, the BJP is looking for electoral partners. It is exploring a political arrangement with the Lok Shakti headed by former Chief Minister Ramakrishna Hegde. B.S. Yediyurappa, State BJP president, told Frontline: "Hegde is in touch with us and it all depends on his attitude. We have an open mind on this."

It is believed that Hegde is reluctant to make a formal commitment to the BJP because he hopes to reach an understanding with the Congress(I). Asked how he could justify an alliance with a communal party which he had criticised in the past, Hedge told Frontline that the BJP had tempered its stand on Article 370, the Ayodhya issue and the issue of a uniform civil code. "In any case, we will only have a seat-adjustment with the party," he said. "That does not mean that we will agree with all their policies and programmes."

The BJP, however, is clear that it will not compromise on any of its stated positions to accommodate the views of an alliance partner. The extent to which it is prepared to underplay its views on basic issues will depend on how beneficial an alliance with Hedge will be to the party.

An alliance with the Lok Shakti will certainly be to the BJP’s advantage. It will improve BJP’s chances in areas where the party’s roots are not traditionally strong and where the Lok Shakti has pockets of influence, especially in the north Karnataka belt.

Tamil Nadu

T.S. SUBRAMANIAN

The BJP and its alliance partners in Tamil Nadu form a curious combination with no common position on substantive issues.

THERE is no ideological affinity among the BJP and its alliance partners in Tamil Nadu - the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK), the Marumalarchi Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (MDMK), the Pattali Makkal Katchi (PMK), the Janata Party and the Tamilaga Rajiv Congress (TRC). These parties have mutual differences over issues as varied as the Babri Masjid demolition, support for the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE), 69 per cent reservation for the backward classes, and corruption charges against leaders.

Observers say that the AIADMK’s decision to enter into an alliance with the BJP, which has a "Hindi-Hindu-Hindutva" agenda, amounts to disowning its origins in the Dravidian movement, which was based on, among other things, opposition to upper-caste domination, religious chauvinism and imposition of Hindi.

As for the BJP, having teamed up with Jayalalitha, it can no longer claim to be a campaigner against corruption. For Jayalalitha faces a number of corruption cases.

The rest of the alliance partners too have been at odds with one another in the past. As Chief Minister, Jayalalitha demanded a ban on the PMK. Asked how she could align with a party she had once wanted banned, she said: "Why do you want to dig up the past?" An overwhelming concern to disown past actions with regard to other parties in the alliance is evident in virtually every partner. Both the MDMK and the Janata Party had in the past criticised Jayalalitha and made serious charges of corruption against her. Jayalalitha and Janata Party leader, Dr. Subramanian Swamy, once bitter foes, have criticised the MDMK and the PMK for their alleged pro-LTTE leanings. Today, when reminded about her old allegations, Jayalalitha nonchalantly dismisses them as "old hat".

When Jayalalitha, spoke at a National Integration Council meeting in November 1992 in defence of the kar seva in Ayodhya that eventually led to the demolition of the Babri Masjid, TRC leader Vazhapadi K. Ramamurthy, who was then Tamil Nadu Congress(I) president, called her "a mouthpiece of the BJP". Today he finds himself on the same side as the BJP and Jayalalitha.

The BJP-AIADMK alliance was firmed up when Jayalalitha and BJP president L.K. Advani shared the dais at the AIADMK silver jubilee conference at Tirunelveli on January 3 (see box). Both the leaders went to great lengths to defend the alliance. The rest of the alliance partners, who participated in the conference, spoke at length too in defence of their alliance with the BJP.

Jayalalitha said that the BJP was "not a communal party" and that it alone could provide a stable government at the Centre. If the BJP formed a coalition Government at the Centre, she said, the AIADMK would like to take part in it. Advani said that the AIADMK’s growth was not just an evolution of a political party but that of a movement in a positive direction, and that the alliance was a natural culmination of this evolution.

See online : Frontline

P.S.

Vol. 15 :: No. 01 :: Jan. 10 - 23, 1998

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